Accepted: behind a US college admissions scandal and the students affected | Documentary films

The viral videos all had the same format: a black student sits at a nondescript table, nervously hovering over a laptop, surrounded by a phalanx of mostly black students, phone cameras at the ready to capture the moment. When the students from TM Landry, an unorthodox private high school in rural Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, see the acceptance emails – to Harvard, Dartmouth, Wellesley and other top-tier universities not usually open to working-class, minority students – they erupt into cheers, a euphoric mass grasping at the student who got the golden ticket.

TM Landry, founded by married couple Mike and Tracey Landry in their kitchen in 2005, produced several of these videos in 2016 and 2017, drawing national media attention. The videos, stitched together in the early minutes of Accepted, a new documentary on TM Landry and the warped Monopoly game of higher education, offered a seemingly hopeful, feelgood message, one echoed on the Today Show, CBS This Morning, Michelle Obama’s Twitter account and Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show: here was a miracle school launching black students to their dream schools. TM Landry had, against precipitous odds, figured out a way in.

Accepted, directed by Dan Chen, reveals a much more complicated story through the eyes of four students from TM Landry’s class of 2019. As with many heartwarming viral video clips, things were not what they seemed behind the scenes. In November 2018, the New York Times published an investigation which found that TM Landry falsified transcripts, embellished applications and mined stereotypes of black America to cater to Ivy League schools eager for Cinderella stories of intense hardship; that it had deceived parents and fostered a culture of emotional and alleged physical abuse, such as forcing students to kneel and berating them. Without formal instruction, younger students were several grade levels behind. (The Landrys have denied forging transcripts. Mike Landry told the Times he would occasionally hit students and could be rough, and that kneeling was to teach humility, for five minutes at most.)

The article drops about halfway through Accepted, a coming-of-age movie that keeps its sensitive eye trained on the students whose lives were disrupted by the scandal, left adrift in a potholed education system. “We went into it wanting to tell the story of the students from their perspective,” Chen told the Guardian. “But there still was kinda a magical field around the school.” The Times article shattered the illusion, revealing a flawed school within a flawed system of college admissions. “By peeling away the magical kind of forcefield around it, we got to then focus on the kids as individuals, and not as miracle students at a miracle school,” said Chen. “We got to see their flaws, their hopes, their dreams, their everyday life as it really was without any of the baggage attached to them.”

Drawn by the viral videos and TM Landry’s success in launching poor black students into the Ivy Leagues, Chen and producers Jesse Einstein and Jason Y Lee first visited the school in April 2018, with the intent of following several students from the class of 2019 through the standardized tests, college application process and general chaos of their senior year. Those students include Alicia, a bookworm who hopes that her mother, a Nigerian immigrant with stage IV cancer, will live long enough to see her go to college. Adia, an animal-lover, open yet wary, needs a fresh start after grief from the loss of her parents and younger brother derailed her education. Isaac, an aspiring engineer from a lineage of oil workers, hopes to follow in the footsteps of his brother, a Landry graduate who matriculated to NYU. Cathy, an Asian American student, dreams of a college degree that would allow her to support her mother and two disabled sisters.

They were interested in the Landrys’ methods, which seemed at best curious, and at times concerning. The school was held in an abandoned warehouse – no classrooms, no formal classes, no textbooks. Older students appeared to teach younger ones. The students were in school six days a week, often from 8am until 8pm. Mike Landry presided over everything like a drill sergeant, preaching relentless work and the importance of individual will to overcome dire statistics – the percentage of black men who end up in prison, the percentage of them who will die young. His daily call-and-responses of “I love you” in different languages ​​included what he called “Mikenese” (the response was “kneel”.)

There was an element of “we’re not from here, [so] if the students themselves or the parents feel like this is somehow along the rocky journey to a better future, let’s investigate that with openness and ambivalence,” said Chen. But over time, the producers came to see that they were being given a show. Students spoke of the pressure of participating in the documentary, torn between being honest and saying what Mike advised them to say.

“Even before the New York Times article came out, our relationship with the school got very complicated and very fraught,” said Chen. About a month before the article came out, a teacher who abruptly exited the school and the project invited the film-makers to meet with a group of former TM Landry parents. “What you learn in the New York Times article was basically what they told us that day,” said Chen.

Accepted: not so much a judgment on TM Landry as on elite American universities. Photograph: Greenwich Entertainment

The team decided to shelve the movie, but stayed in contact with students and teachers who wanted to talk, or ask for help. They returned only when it was clear several students wanted to express their personal experience at the center of a whirlwind – mental health concerns, feeling isolated and adrift, redefining their futures. “When we came back, the students led where they wanted the movie to go,” Einstein told the Guardian.

Accepted is careful not to make a retread of the Times story or a clinical investigation into the facts at TM Landry – “there’s really great reporting done by Katie Benner and Erica Green, and if anyone wants to get into that, that’s there,” said Einstein. Instead, the film’s second half delves into aftermath of four students who left the school during their senior year. How Alicia copes with self-loathing and shame following the scandal, how Isaac adapts to a new school and a less “prestigious” college path, how Adia navigates depression outside the close-knit TM Landry family, how Cathy handles everything while fighting to get $15,000 in tuition money back from the Landrys.

As the four try to sort out their futures, another college admissions scandal hits: Operation Varsity Blues, in which rich white parents, including Hollywood stars such as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, paid hundreds of thousands to gain their children entry into elite schools, by bribing college officials, inflating test scores, and faking applications. In one scene, Adia and Isaac laugh at the absurdity and inequity of trying to get an Ivy spot. “We were too poor to bribe anyone to take our tests for us,” Adia says wryly.

“The difference is that in Varsity Blues people were trying to get out of working hard,” said Einstein, “and at TM Landry the kids were working really, really hard to then go somewhere else, where they could then continue to work really, Really hard.”

Accepted is, ultimately, not so much a judgment on TM Landry as on elite American universities, which reify America’s false ideals of meritocracy and individualism. The film observes the students, left to navigate shattered ideals in the wake of TM Landry, coming to terms with that knowledge, and reforming their ideas of success.

As Alicia puts in her college essay, read aloud for the film-makers: “Too often in our society, we think of educating black children as a philosophic enterprise. We see education as a gift to be bestowed upon black students instead of a public good to be accessed.

“When you have these miracle students who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you don’t have to think about systematic oppression,” she continues. “And that’s just wrong, because you’re doing a huge disservice to every other student.”

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